Col. Elmer Ellsworth Killed by Irate Rebel Sympathizer

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Col. Elmer Ellsworth Killed by Irate Rebel Sympathizer

"Death of Col. Ellsworth after hauling down the rebel flag,
at the taking of Alexandria, Va., May 24th 1861"
Colorized Currier & Ives print, 1861
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: May 24, 1861

[Today's post is an update to one originally published in 2011]

Today's excursion into the history of the War Between the States involves one of the first "martyrs to the Union," a young, dashing officer, and a personal friend of President Lincoln. His early death resulted in thousands of young Northerners enlisting to "Remember Ellsworth."


Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth was born April 11, 1837 in the town of Malta, New York. He grew up in nearby Mechanicville, eventually moving to New York City. He longed for a military career, hoping to receive an appointment to West Point. Unfortunately, his less-than-spectacular scholarship and his parents' modest means made this dream unlikely. In 1854 he moved to Rockford, Illinois and took a job in a patent office.

Ellsworth became engaged to a young lady whose father, a prominent Illinois banker, told Elmer he could marry his daughter when he could financially support them both. He then moved to Springfield, Illinois in 1860, studying law and working as a law clerk in the office of Abraham Lincoln. He worked on Lincoln's election campaign, giving stump speeches as needed. Ellsworth then came to Washington DC with the new President.

Grateful for the young man's help in his election campaign, Lincoln appointed Ellsworth to a clerk's job at the War Department. However, Ellsworth was eager to be more involved with the war effort. When the South fired on Fort Sumter in April of 1861, he resigned his desk job, and returned to his home state of New York. Elmer then struck upon the idea of raising a regiment of volunteer militia. His idea was rather unique.

The 11th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment (New York "Fire Zouaves")

During his time in Illinois, Ellsworth continued his study of military subjects. He even took over the National Guard Cadets, a local Chicago area drill team. He turned the nearly-disbanded group into a crack military-style unit. He met Lincoln while on tour, and the two men became good friends. Ellsworth's experience with the National Guard Cadets inspired him to try his hand at recruiting a militia regiment to fight for the Union.

Ellsworth had become enamored with the tales of the Zouaves. These troops were part of the French Army fighting in Algeria. Their drills and stamina – but especially their uniforms – became the focus of Ellsworth's desire to raise and command of a military unit.

Arriving in New York City, Ellsworth met with a number of chiefs of the New York fire department. He believed that firemen perfectly fit the bill for members of a military unit, because they were used to danger, duty, and obedience. Other observers believed that these men were "as wild as wharf rats." [We will discuss this last observation a little later…]

Col. Elmer E. Ellsworth (1837-1861); Albumen silver print, from the Matthew Brady studio; From The Photographic History of The Civil War in Ten Volumes: Volume One, The Opening Battles, 1911
Col. Elmer E. Ellsworth (1837-1861)
Albumen silver print, from the Matthew Brady studio
From The Photographic History of The Civil War in Ten Volumes: Volume One, The Opening Battles, 1911

Word of Ellsworth's intentions spread quickly within the Big Apple's fire departments. Soon, Elmer had 2400 men seeking to join his outfit. He winnowed that number down to 1100 men. With the help of fund-raisers and public donations, he managed to equip the men. A local newspaper said: "Col. Ellsworth arrived in this city on Thursday of last week. On Friday he called together a number of the principal men of the department. On Saturday he selected his officers. On Sunday he mustered one thousand men. On Monday he drilled them."

The regiment's uniform was designed by Ellsworth himself, and was more appropriate for a dress parade than for a battlefield. It consisted of light gray jackets of a chasseur style, with dark blue and red trim along with gray trousers of a jeanscloth material with a blue stripe running down the seam, and tan leather leggings. Along with their gray uniforms, they wore red kepis with a blue band and also received a red fez with a blue tassel, military-issue shirt and/or overshirts. Many Zouaves went off to war wearing the badges of their respective fire companies. [The photo below shows the uniform of Corporal Francis Brownell, a member of the Fire Zouaves. Some of the colors – due to inferior materials and dyes, and the passage of time – have faded. To get a better idea of the original color scheme, please refer to the illustration at the top of this post.]

Uniform of Francis Brownell, a member of the Fire Zouaves, Currently at the Manassas Battlefield Museum, Manassas VA
Uniform of Francis Brownell, a member of the Fire Zouaves,
Currently at the Manassas Battlefield Museum, Manassas VA

The regiment arrived in the nation's capital on May 2. They were initially quartered in and around the U.S. Capitol building (which was vacant, as Congress was in recess). The high-spirited firemen then promptly began a mini-Reign of Terror. They broke into pubs, ordered meals at restaurants and then pulled "dine-and-dashes," and set fire to rail fences. The men also frightened a number of local women, and chased downed imagined Confederate sympathizers all over town. As a result of these incidents, Ellsworth received a letter of reprimand from Brigadier General Joseph K. Mansfield, commander of the Department of Washington. On May 7, the regiment – now known as the 11th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment – was sworn into federal service.

Two days later, on May 9, the Willard Hotel in downtown Washington caught fire. Nearly the entire contingent of Fire Zouaves showed up to extinguish the blaze. The owner of the hotel was so grateful for their help he invited them to breakfast, then collected $500. Soon after, the unit was quartered at the nearby Government Hospital for the Insane (now known as St. Elizabeth's Hospital) in nearby Anacostia. The men began the routine of camp life – drill, sit around, drill, et cetera.

At the same time, Col. Ellsworth took advantage of his friendship with President Lincoln, staying at the White House for days at a time. He became a playmate to the President's sons – Willie and Tad – rough-housing and playing games. Elmer even caught a case of the measles from the two children. In addition, he lifted the spirits of Lincoln, who was veritably drowning in the minutiae of organizing the government and the stress of trying to run a war.

Occupation of Alexandria and the Death of Col. Ellsworth

On May 23, voters in the state of Virginia ratified the Articles of Secession approved by the state legislature in April. In addition, it was announced that the Confederate government would move its capital from Montgomery, Alabama to Richmond, Virginia. Located across the Potomac from Washington, the city of Alexandria had important rail connections to the new Confederate capital. Since it seemed only a matter of time before the rebels would mount cannons there and shell the White House and Congress, Lincoln and General Winfield Scott ordered a pre-emptive strike to take Alexandria before these plans could be put into effect.

Consequently, on May 24 about 1000 Federal troops boarded a steamship and crossed the Potomac River. Col. Ellsworth and his Fire Zouaves were assigned a part of this operation. Navy Captain John Dahlgren, commander of the ship, noted, "I was remarkably impressed with the Col's. promptness, his constant good judgement [sic] and discretion, the perfect command which he had of his men, and of his coolness and bravery. He acted with the apparent experience of a trained officer of the regular [Army], and his men kept perfect silence and composure and executed with alacrity every order and direction he gave them."

Ellsworth detailed a company of men to occupy the railroad station, while he personally directed a second company to take control of the telegraph office. On the way to this objective, Ellsworth and his men passed by the Marshall House, a local hotel on the corner of King and South Pitt streets, which was flying a large Confederate flag, known as the "Stars and Bars." This flag was so huge, President Lincoln could see it from the White House when looking through a telescope.

Marshall House, Alexandria VA, date & photographer unknown
Marshall House, Alexandria VA, date & photographer unknown

Seeing the banner of the hated Confederacy, Col. Ellsworth was determined to take it down and present it to his friend and mentor, the President. With four men, Ellsworth climbed to the roof of the inn and cut down the flag.

As they descended the stairs, they were ambushed by James W. Jackson, the secessionist innkeeper. Armed with an English-made double-barrel shotgun, Jackson fired once, striking Col. Ellsworth in the chest, killing him instantly. Reacting a bit belatedly, Private Francis E. Brownell of Company A of the Fire Zouaves, leveled his own musket at the assassin. Jackson fired the second barrel, aiming for the soldier, but missed. Brownell's aim was better, striking the irate innkeeper and killing him. For good measure, Pvt. Brownell bayoneted Jackson. [For his action, Brownell was later promoted to corporal and in 1877 awarded a Medal of Honor.]

Pvt. (later Corporal) Francis Brownell 'Ellsworth's Avenger'
Pvt. (later Corporal) Francis Brownell
"Ellsworth's Avenger"

When Lincoln received word of Ellsworth's death, he was devastated. The President ordered that his friend's body be brought to the White House, where it lay in state. It was eventually returned to New York, where it was on display in City Hall for three days. The body was finally shipped by boat and train to his hometown of Mechanicville, where he was buried.

Lincoln wrote a letter to Ellsworth's parents on Saturday, May 25th after attending the White House funeral. Lincoln wrote, "My acquaintance with him began less than two years ago; yet through the latter half of the intervening period, it was as intimate as the disparity of our ages, and my engrossing engagements, would permit...What was conclusive of his good heart, he never forgot his parents…In the hope that it may be no intrusion upon the sacredness of your sorrow, I have ventured to address you this tribute to the memory of…your brave and early fallen child. May God give you that consolation which is beyond all earthly power."

Footnote #1: Ellsworth's body was embalmed by Dr. Thomas Holmes, using new methods which he had developed. As a result of his work, Holmes' practice expanded. The doctor boasted that he had embalmed over 4000 bodies.

Footnote #2: The Confederate flag was presented to Cpl. Brownell, which he kept until his death in 1894. Brownell's widow then began selling pieces of the flag for $10 and $15 apiece. The New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center in Saratoga Springs has most of the flag itself. It also has Ellsworth's uniform, showing the hole from the fatal shot.

English-made 12 gauge double-barrel shotgun owned by innkeeper James Jackson; Currently in the collection of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, Washington Dc
English-made 12 gauge double-barrel shotgun owned by innkeeper James Jackson
Currently in the collection of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, Washington Dc

Footnote #3: The Fort Ward Museum in Alexandria, Virginia dedicates a section of their museum to Ellsworth, displaying the kepi he wore when he was killed, patriotic envelopes bearing his image, a piece of the Confederate flag (on which Ellsworth's blood is still visible), and the "O" from the Marshall House sign that a soldier took as a souvenir. The Marshall House was torn down in the 1950's. On its site is The Alexandrian Hotel.

Footnote #4: After the occupation of Alexandria, the "Fire Zouaves" saw their first major action of the war on July 21, 1861 at the First Battle of Manassas (Bull Run). At one point in the fight, they faced the "Stonewall Brigade" on Henry House Hill. Later, they served as part of the Federal rearguard, and in the process repelled an attack by J.E.B. Stuart's Rebel cavalry.

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